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Hotel School receives $15 million from Lee and Mary Pillsbury for entrepreneurship, its largest gift ever

The largest single gift in the history of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration -- and one of the largest gifts ever for hospitality education in the United States -- was announced Nov. 13 at a gathering of Hotel School alumni in New York City. The gift will help support the school's Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship (IHE).

Hotel School Dean Michael Johnson announced at the Cornell Hotel Society's General Membership Meeting that Leland "Lee" Pillsbury '69 and his wife, Mary, will donate $15 million to support the IHE's programs and course offerings.

A relatively new initiative launched in 2004, the institute aims to connect students with the skills and abilities to think like entrepreneurs through course offerings, scholarships and hospitality-focused business experiences. Its acting managing director is Joseph Strodel Jr., the Hotel School's director of corporate relations.

The announcement, which was met with applause and a standing ovation for the Pillsburys, came just weeks after Cornell launched a five-year, $4 billion capital campaign for its Ithaca campus and Weill Medical College in New York City.

Turning to the Pillsburys, Johnson declared, "It's a wonderful gift, and it's going to be transformational for the school." He called Lee Pillsbury a "classic hotelie," and Mary an honorary one. "We look forward to working with the Pillsburys to build a world-class entrepreneurship institute befitting our commitment to leadership in hospitality management education."

Lee Pillsbury commented that the Hotel School has always been about entrepreneurship. "For us to help formalize and advance that, we think, is a unique opportunity to really add some value to what the Hotel School is offering to its students," he said.

Associate Dean for Industry and Research Affairs Cathy Enz said the Hotel School has a history of alumni who have become successful entrepreneurs. With the Pillsburys' gift, the school can boost future entrepreneurs through curriculum and programming that deal with the fundamentals of running businesses, she said.

"The institute is a new initiative, but the notion of, the celebration of and the support of entrepreneurs in the Hotel School is a very old story," Enz noted.

A native of Ithaca, Lee Pillsbury rose through the ranks at Marriott Corp. to become its youngest-ever executive vice president at age 36, leading the company into the timeshare business and the launch of Fairfield Inns.

After he retired from Marriott in 1989, Pillsbury and his wife launched their first business together, the Thayer Lodging Group. They also built a hotel management company, Grand Heritage Hotels, which they later sold.

Lee Pillsbury is a frequent guest lecturer at the Hotel School and has served several terms on the University Council.

The gift announcement was made in conjunction with a series of Hotel School events in New York City, including the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show.

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